"Masters of the possible, simply because they had to be."

Richard Fernandez, formerly known as The Belmont Club, is depressed that the U.S. military may have gotten too good for its own good:

What America has gotten, Kaplan says, is a quasi-imperial corps. Ironically, what brought about the revival of the imperial capability was the disinterest of the intellectual elite, who were too good to devote much time to the problems of failed beyond uttering banal generalities. So they left it to the men on the spot and forgot about them. That cut-off may have been just as well because George Orwell claimed that the British Empire had been ‘killed by the telegraph’.

Obama’s neglect may have been a blessing... which brings its own dangers:

This show of organizational dynamism points to a ground truth: despite the awful toll of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, American ground troops are emerging nearly a decade after 9/11 as a force that is even more organizationally and intellectually formidable than it was after the Berlin Wall collapsed, when the United States was the lone superpower. Army and Marine Corps company commanders, for example, can lead in a conventional fight and, as Kolenda’s experience showed, also bring order to chaotic tribal and ethnic messes, all while they communicate effectively up the bureaucratic chain (a skill they began to hone before 9/11, in the Balkans). And these officers have mastered what is, in fact, the colonial technique of partnering with indigenous forces molded in their own image. Rodriguez’s command is a culmination of this whole experience.

But the very dominance of the U.S. military can lead to a dangerous delusion.

Robert D. Kaplan also shares some of his memories of Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion:

Afghanistan is not some barbaric back-of-beyond, but the heart of a cultural continuum connecting the cosmopolitan centers of Persia and India. In fact, Afghanistan has been governed from the center since the 18th century: Kabul, if not always a point of authority, has been at least a point of arbitration. Especially between the early 1930s and the early 1970s, Afghanistan experienced moderate and constructive government under the constitutional monarchy of Zahir Shah. A highway system on which it was safe to travel united the major cities, while estimable health and development programs were on the verge of eradicating malaria. Toward the end of this period, I hitchhiked and rode buses across Afghanistan. I never felt threatened, and I was able to send books and clothes back home through functioning post offices.

There was, too, a strong Afghan national identity distinct from that of Iran or Pakistan or the Soviet Union. Pashtunistan might be a real enough geographic construct, but so, very definitely, is Afghanistan. As Ismail Akbar, a writer and analyst in Kabul, told me: “Thirty years of war and Pakistani interference have weakened Afghan national identity from the heights of the Zahir Shah period. But even the mujahideen civil war of the early 1990s, in which the groups were split along ethnic lines, could not break up Afghanistan. And if that couldn’t, nothing will.”

Afghans were so desperate for a reunited country after the internecine fighting of the mujahideen era that they welcomed the Taliban in Kandahar in 1994 and in Kabul in 1996, as a bulwark against anarchy and dissolution. Afghanistan, frail and battered over the years, is nevertheless surprisingly sturdy as a concept and as a cynosure of identity.